On Monday, noted deficit hawk Rep. Jim Jordan (Oh.) told the Associated Press that in the interest of national security, Congress needed to give the Pentagon $436 million to make improvements to the 70-ton Abrams tank.
“The one area where we are supposed to spend taxpayer money is in defense of the country,” Jordan told the AP.
The only problem with this statement is that the Pentagon doesn’t want the tank. It’s an effective weapon if you’re trying to take Berlin from the Nazis. But it has no practical use in combating the threats the United States faces today.
“If we had our choice, we would use that money in a different way," Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army's chief of staff, told the AP last week.
The reason the program continues? Pork-barrel politics. The Pentagon budget is stuffed with pet projects that funnel money to lawmakers’ districts. The tanks are just the start: In 2009, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress the defense spending bill contained $6.9 billion for things he did not need. Congress approved it anyway.
Gates failed to resolve the tension between what needs to be done – hard-to-swallow cuts – and what’s in the best interest of politicians. So did his successor, Leon Panetta. As long as Congress is thinking in their own interest, and not the fiscal interest of the country, it will be impossible to improve defense spending.
The Abrams tank is made in Lima, Ohio where Jordan and Senator Rob Portman, another noted deficit hawk, represent Lima. The tanks bring jobs and money to Lima. Jobs and money keep voters happy. And happy voters keep Jordan and Portman in office.
This case illustrates just how difficult a task Chuck Hagel has in slashing the defense budget. The military budget is packed with projects like these, and politicians have shown dogged determination to keep DOD’s cash faucet running in their districts.
House Appropriations Committee Chair Rep. Hal Rogers (R) has steered hundreds of millions of dollars to his Kentucky district, while calling for deficit reduction here in DC. He secured a contract for a firm that contributed to his campaign for $17,000 drip trays used in Black Hawks. He’s so good at it that he’s earned the nickname “The Prince of Pork.”
Members of the House Armed Services Committee are also notorious for inserting pork into DOD spending bills. According to a report in Time last year, the committee created a $594.7 million slush fund for members to send projects to their home districts. The money was earmarked to pay for “Restoration & Modernization of Facilities” but the law contained no specifics on what this term meant. It served as a cover for projects sent to connected donors.
Many of the pork projects contained in the budget have nothing to do with defense. According to a report by Sen. Tom Coburn released last year, $68 billion included in the Pentagon’s budget are for non-defense programs. These include money to develop an app that informs workers of their coffee break, as well as $1.5 million for DOD to develop its own beef jerky.
Certain states also benefit disproportionately from DOD spending. In Washington, DC, the Pentagon spends more than $22,000 per resident, while in Alaska it spends $16,581. Virginia Hawaii, and Maryland round out the top five (respectively receiving $10,465, $7,790 and $4,618).
SPENDING CRITICS INDULGE
Ironically, lawmakers who benefit from pork projects are also outspoken spending critics. Portman has written op-eds calling for cuts to entitlement programs to curb the deficit. Rogers said his job in Washington is to "scrutinize the federal budget through tough oversight, rein in wasteful government spending, and reduce our country’s deficit for generations to come."
Jordan’s stance is especially egregious. As the chair of the Republican Study Committee, he said that while defense cuts weren’t preferable, they were necessary.
As long as they aren’t in his district.